Everything about the production of Cook with the Hook: Live in 1974 is amateurish. The quick cuts between cameras can make your head hurt; a camera sometimes jerks erratically; gray screens and shots of trees and random audience members conspire to create maximum confusion. The sound varies from distorted to acceptable. Oh, and it's in glorious black and white. This is not Austin City Limits.
Yet this is an important document, and a blast to watch. It's amazing it didn't surface before now. Any documentation of a John Lee Hooker performance from the mid-'70s is bound to be rewarding; the bluesman was at the height of his notoriety and his powers. He exudes confidence, looking out from under an impressive hat and a pair of shades. His guitar lines are uniformly straightforward, propelling the music with an irresistible groove and a subtle punch. He seems relaxed but intense, almost cold-blooded as he sings his lines.
The DVD is also quite intriguing as a document of life in the wilds of Massachusetts. The show took place in a particularly unpleasant corner of Gardner: the town dump. In a vintage, if particularly smelly, echo of contemporary Valley arts happenings, an outfit dubbed the Crossroads Concert Group took it upon themselves to put local and national players on a stage at the landfill.
In an article from the Gardner News that appears in the liner notes, it's explained that the group landed Hooker and other performers (Captain Metro, the Wiley Crawford Band, Skyhook, Firewater and Zargut) as part of its second landfill concert series called Down in the Dumps.
It's hard to imagine a similar setting working out so well now, when the borders of landfills are hotly contested and concerns about substances leaking and reeking are paramount. Apparently, concertgoers had few such things on their minds in 1974. Feathered hair, cut-offs and tight T-shirts abound in the audience shots; facial hair and long tresses sprout in all directions. Maybe it was the lack of multimedia distractions or simply a love of live music in the Massachusetts of that era, but it's singularly impressive that the show drew some 6,000 people.
It's also testament to the ingenuity and drive of the Gardner arts community that the show was captured for posterity. Though the '80s were probably the fullest flowering of local access cable channels, in 1974 local cable program director Robert Boyd undertook a full-on filming of Cook with the Hook, complete with three cameras. The dizzying cuts and weird shots are part of the charm of this long-ago concert; that it was captured at all is remarkable.
It can be easy to cast the past of several decades ago as impossibly archaic, to forget that it had its own vital and fully developed media, art scenes and artists full of energy and drive. That they pulled off such grand coups as putting on and filming a massive music fest at the landfill is all the more impressive for the tools they used to do it. Things like calling on one's Facebook friends weren't even in the cards; whipping up a flyer or taking publicity photos required a lot more time, effort and money than they do now. Then there's the matter of lugging the heavy, unwieldy television equipment of 1974 down to the town dump. Hindsight makes the whole business seem Herculean.
It's important to remember just how unusual a document this DVD is when you pop it in. It's important, too, to look past wobbly camera work and weird sound, to raise a glass to the stalwart arts enthusiasts of 1974 when you groove along to the gorgeous strains of "Boom Boom" as it blasts out of your speakers, straight from the Gardner dump of yesteryear.